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Athens on Fifth Avenue

This is not just a spiffing up of the galleries,” said Philippe de Montebello as he showed me around the renovated classical Greek section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. De Montebello, the director of the Met, was about to leave for Athens, where he would describe the new Greek exhibit to the Ministry of Culture and invite the prime minister to attend the opening on April 20. “This is a way of rethinking the entire Greek heritage,” he continued. “It amounts to the appearance of a whole new museum in New York.” The refurbishing of the galleries that contain the Met’s classical collection is a major phase in the museum’s re-presentation of Western antiquity (from the prehistoric through the Hellenistic and Roman eras). In the spacious new arrangements of vitrines and pedestals and wall cases, the objects are mounted, lit, labeled in such a way that artifact speaks to artifact, each work explaining and explained by its neighbors—in terms of time, style, subject matter, culture, region, medium.

Those familiar with large collections of Greek vases—in Athens, say, or Boston—know how hard it is to maintain an alert attention to rows upon rows of pots (whether arranged in terms of shape, painter, or period). The new cases at the Met, says the classical art curator Carlos Picón, try to highlight a “star” of each space, with ancillary objects resonating to some aspect of its importance. Sporting artifacts may surround a vase with a scene of the games, or religious ones a scene of sacrifice. A case of small sculptures is unified by its reflection of Parthenon style. One case contains artifacts related to the theater, including a flask in the form of a bird-man which, by date, looks like a deliberate reference to the chorus figures in Aristophanes’ The Birds. It is the equivalent of Batman mugs given out at fast-food chains after the movie has appeared.

The paradox of the “new” galleries is that their greatest feature may be their oldest—what de Montebello calls “a great leap backwards.” This space was envisaged, near the beginning of this century, in a form that is only now being realized. The spine of the galleries is a long barrel-vaulted and skylighted space that was conceived by Edward Robinson, the first director of the Met who was also a classicist. He wanted to arrange all the classical antiquities in one area, laid out in chronological order, in and alongside the barrel-vaulted hall, to which a Roman-style atrium was added in 1926 for the display of Roman art. Before the first plan could be completed it was being subverted. The outbreak of the First World War prevented shipment of the limestone casing of the great gallery’s walls (they were painted to imitate stone). The chronological sequence of the exhibits was disrupted by the shifting of objects in and out of the galleries. Second World War air-raid rules sealed over the skylights in the barrel vault. The postwar crush of visitors led to conversion of the Roman atrium into the current cafeteria. The barrel-vaulted hall became a dingy corridor, where one rushed past jumbled rows of Cypriot and Roman statues toward the clatter of silverware and coffee cups. A mezzanine was built around the cafeteria space to contain the directors’ offices. “We are going to be evicted at the next stage of the renovation,” de Montebello says with satisfaction.

The long gallery at last looks like what Robinson had in mind—a promenade in the great baths of Rome. Its skylights are reopened. Its coffered ceiling has been completely re-created (the old coffers were decayed beyond restoration). The limestone is finally on the walls. Pedestals specially quarried near Viterbo for their green-gray glow hold statues placed at pleasing intervals down the center and along the sides of the room. The colors of the works and of the room richly complement each other in the illumination from above.

In an important way, this hall surpasses its original plan. Four new portals have been opened on the side walls, subordinated to the two great ones that were originally placed there. This allows a viewer to crisscross the central spine, working one’s way down the chronologically ordered three galleries on either side of the great hall. The sequence is easily ordered in one’s mind: the first pair of galleries is devoted to the sixth century BCE, the second pair to the fifth, the third pair to the fourth. As one goes back and forth through the great hall, the large statues in that sector of the hall date from the century celebrated on either side of it.

De Montebello begins the tour on the east side of the complex, where the large windows opening on Fifth Avenue give the three sculpture galleries on this side a flood of natural light. Pointing to the row of buildings across Fifth Avenue visible through the windows, de Montebello says, “This is an urban museum,” with the ancient and modern worlds in a kind of dialogue under the same light. This first gallery has the Metropolitan Kouros at its center, a pivot of the room, where archaic style is becoming classical, the frontal male moving forward, his knees with neatly bunched muscles above them. Two funeral steles, one complete, one a substantial fragment, are on the wall beyond the Kouros. The complete one is fourteen feet tall, and the dead athlete on its relief shows traces of the paint that colored most classical marbles (even the Kouros has polychrome traces). The sphinx high on the top of the monument is a plaster cast—the original is shown on a pedestal below, where the tints on it can be inspected up close. This whole exhibit stresses the ancient Greeks’ vivid sense of color, combating the vulgar concep-tion of a classical “purity” worked out in white marble and black bronze. Bronzes, too, were colored (with copper highlighting, painted accessories, and naturalistic eyes). The stele fragment in this room is a particularly delicate example of early polychromy. Its relief figure is a charioteer, and the legs of the farther horse are distinguished from those of the nearer horse, in this shallowly incised carving, by color. Picón, tracing the amazingly sharp lines of the carving, says, “This is as good as the sixth century gets.” De Montebello, pointing to another statue, says, “Touch it—you won’t be able to when the exhibit opens.”

Though the three galleries on the east of the great hall are mainly devoted to sculpture of the appropriate centuries, vitrines and cases show smaller works of the period. In this room a spectacular example of sixth-century humor is shown on a kylix (a broad but shallow cup on a pedestal) by the Amasis Painter. The painted scene shows men tending horses in a stable. We know that it represents an interior scene because the horses stand under the painted frieze of a building, with the open spaces, or metopes, in the frieze containing “carved” figures of birds and animals. At the end of the frieze, the last metope contains an archer whose drawn bow has so frightened the animal in an adjoining “window” that it has come to life and is jumping out of the metope, right off the front of the fictive building.

By crossing over to the sixth-century gallery on the west side, we come to a room without natural light, but whose smaller artifacts are individually mounted and lit for maximum legibility. Particularly striking in the room is a pair of huge kraters (wine-mixing bowls), of which the finer exists only in large shards mounted above a drawing that gives its entire scheme. The vase’s red figures show Dionysos taking Hephaistos back to Olympus (after an angry Zeus threw him down from the mountain). Under the donkey of Dionysos, a satyr is drunkenly sprawled (his nickname is printed beside him, the Greek equivalent of “What, Me Worry?”: Ouk alegoåøn). Though unconscious, the satyr is ithyphallic—his own penis curves in choreographic dialogue up toward the ass’s large appendage, completing the swirl of inebriate joy that runs its circuit from gods through humans and half-humans to the animal world. This room also contains ancient armor, as well as the transition that occurred in this period from black-figure vase painting (with work by one of its masters, Exekias) to red-figure painting. The purported inventor of the new technique, Andokides, is represented here by an amphora, a jar with a special white-ground lip.

The Exekias amphora is particularly lovely, with a processional (marriage?) chariot on either side. One is a three-horse chariot (the middle horse white), and it is escorted by a kitharist (lute player) in full song. (See illustration on page 40.) The other is a two-horse chariot hailed by a white-bearded old man (father of the bride?). Both chariots hold a handsome young couple, and it comes as a surprise that the woman holds the reins and guides the horses.

Instead of going back into the main hall, a visitor would do better to enter the next western gallery through a connecting door. We progress boustrophedon, as the Greeks would say, in plow-pattern “ox turns,” out one furrow and back along a parallel one. Entering the middle gallery on this western side, we are in the fifth century. An important vase is the so-called “million-dollar pot,” the calyx krater by Euphronios for whose purchase former director Thomas Hoving was roundly criticized. Some thought its source suspect and its price extravagant.1 And there is irony in the placement, nearby in this room, of fifth-century coins on loan from the American Numismatic Society, since Hoving was able to pay a million dollars for the Euphronios vase because he sold the Met’s Greek coin collection. The loans used to run the other way, toward and not from the Numismatic Society. In any event, the coins on loan are handsomely displayed, with clarifying rather than confusing information on a large chart beside them, and the Euphronios painting on the krater—of the fallen warrior Sarpedon being tenderly cared for by Sleep and Death—is powerful in its restraint.

Of the vases in this room, some will prefer the popular Berlin Painter’s large amphora with only two figures, one on each side, limned dreamlike against a rich black background. On the reverse side of the amphora is a music-contest judge, who extends an assessing hand. On the obverse is a kitharist rapt in song, his garments swaying as he moves to the music, the scarf on his instrument doing a little dance of its own. On one side control, on the other side ecstasy, a union of music’s antithetical strengths.

This exhibit’s way of putting objects in dialogue with each other is apparent, on the far wall of this room, in a white-ground kylix by the Villa Giulia Painter showing a woman pouring a libation from an offering-saucer (phiale). Beside it is an actual silver phiale from the same period as the vase.

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    The early controversy over the Euphronios cup is extensively covered in John L. Hess, The Grand Acquisitors (Houghton Mifflin, 1974) and Karl E. Meyer, The Plundered Past (Atheneum, 1973). The Italian government and New York’s attorney general, Louis Lefkowitz, were brought into the investigation of the vase’s purchase. It was alleged that shards from a recent Etruscan dig were parts of the vase before its reconstruction; but this proved unverifiable. No contrary case has been as strong as the one the Met’s counsel, Ashton Hawkins, made for the legitimacy of the purchase in “The Euphronoios Krater at the Metropolitan Museum: A Question of Provenance,” The Hasting Law Journal 5 (1976), pp. 1163-1181.

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